The courtroom was alive with chatter, as it had been for two hours. Pearl and Arjallia enjoyed a place at the front of the balcony, Pearl’s new guards standing beside and behind them, yet the people would press against the guards, and the guards perforce must be pressed against their charges. Pearl knew it was not their fault, but after two hours her knees and spine were aching. “The princess is not a turnip,” she barked to be heard over the din. “Do not allow her to be mashed into paste.”
Arjallia had been fidgeting since about ten minutes in, but Pearl feared to send her home alone, even with a guard alongside. The streets had grown sinister of late.
The steward had been banging his staff on the ground for over a minute now. Stewards were an invention of the Old Empire. Like so many other aspects of the New Orckid Empire, the Mornals had simply taken the office and given it to one of their own. Berlenian was a lord of small account who liked to make loud noises, so it seemed a fitting job for him. Just now, however, his general impotence was on display. All the staff-banging in the world failed to chasten the assembled crowd, and his infamous bellows failed to carry.
The Emperor was sitting in a massive chair of gilded wood, its high back carved into the shape of a round shield braced by two spears. Purple drapes added some cushioning, hanging loose and disordered about it. The oaken governor’s chair sitting empty beside it seemed a child’s toy by contrast. Imrell stood next to the chair, Igetus not far from it. It was unsurprising they both eschewed the seat. Imrell’s armor had been polished that morning that shined like a mirror; Pearl thought for a moment the amethysts in her tusks might have been replaced with rubies. Igetus was wearing black robes of cambric, but his felt had was purple; a nod to the new order. Pearl thought for a second he might have let his hair go stubbled, growing it out again perhaps, but it was hard to tell from this distance.
Calphus the Conqueror looked as loose and disordered as the purple drapes upon which he sat. He must have lost two stone in the last fortnight, and was swimming in the indigo toga he had wrapped around his black leather tassets, allowing his thinning legs to splay out. He was gray as a corpse, with huge black bags under his runny pink eyes, and he seemed to be coughing through every fourth sentence lately. Yet he seemed no weaker in disposition. If anything, the apparent rot of his body had only enlivened his fury. Three times already he had removed his crown, a wide onyx band lined in gold and set with amethysts, and hurled it to the ground, only to be recovered by his menial, a boy named Trellion. Just now he planted two hands, firm if wrinkled, onto the arms of his throne and thrust himself upward.
“Siiiillence!” he roared, loud as a herd of frothing manticores. At last, the hall fell quiet. “Are we an empire?” he demanded, refusing to lower his voice, “or a mob of raving geese?”
“No order, no peace!” shouted one of the assembled lords. The merchants were quick to take up the call. Many of the lords and even some of the margraves joined in.
“I’m making order,” the Emperor called out. “If you want order, shut your jaw, or I’ll rip it off!” Again, the room quieted. “You think I can’t do it? You think because I’m old I can’t still teach any one of you respect? You think a cough has made me too weak to chasten a pack of whining cubs?” He coughed at that and banged his fist upon the throne in frustration. “Fetch my ax, boy. Fetch it! I’m glad I threw my cudgel in the river. No more bruises. It’s time for blood!”
Trellion, Neevius’ grandson and the Emperor’s new menial, was standing near the throne in case his master hurled his crown again. Upon hearing the order, he took an uncertain step away before Igetus put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. The boy remained in place.
“Your Excellency,” Margrave Fohordum called out from the crowd. “Who will serve as governor in the interim?”
“I will!” he roared in answer. “The Emperor of Orckid is here in Ajman. What’s the governor supposed to do while I’m here, wipe my buttocks? I’ll have a new one picked before I leave, don’t worry your stubbly head over it.”
“Who did it?” a merchant cried out. “Who killed the governor?”
“Some slave.” He waved a handle in dismissal. “He’s been caught, he’s been scourged, he’s been crucified above the city gates. If any of you powdered panders were brave enough to leave your homes you’d see him there.”
“What was he?” the merchant asked.
“A slave! Hair in your ears? I already told you, one of the governor’s slaves.”
“Yes,” Fohordum replied, “but what kind of slave?”
“A bad one,” Calphus growled. “Obviously.”
The merchant refused to take the hint. “Was he a Viisianar?”
“Dammit, Viisians aren’t the only slaves! Look there!” he roared, pointing to one of the Mornal spearmen lined up against the walls. “And there!” He pointed at a Daridan woman holding a pair of tablets, an old Mornal man whispering in her ear. “Who cares what he was? He was a murderer, and now he’s dead. That’s the end of it.”
“How did he do it?” Fohordum asked.
“He pulled a damn knife out and stabbed him. Who cares?”
“How did he get the knife?”
“Was he a Viisianar?”
“Where are the Governor’s children?”
“Dammit all!” he screamed, his voice cracking into more coughs. He slammed his flat palm on the throne again and again as he hacked and barked. A loud snap came from the throne’s arm as he finally seized himself and regained his composure. “I am the Emperor! You answer me, I don’t answer to you.” He heaved and hoisted himself out his throne. It took two efforts, Pearl did not fail to notice. She suspected no one else failed to notice either. “I’ve said more than I care to and more than you deserve. Neevius, Palcian, with me.” He turned to leave, then stopped a moment and grumbled, “Ah, Kreokus as well, yes,” then left through the backway. Imrell was out after him before any of the named lords reached the doorway, followed finally by little Trellion.
At once, the din reignited. Pearl could not hear Igetus’ sigh, but she knew it was there as he sat in the Emperor’s enormous and now broken throne. He pointed to one of the lords, and the interrogations continued.
“I’ve seen enough,” Pearl said.
“Finally!” Arj had seen enough two hours ago.
The six guards provided by Margrave Kreokus were green, but they were no fools. One of them had the slim build and tannish cast of the Talashar, a people who lived around the Talashi Sea west of Tauriconia, whom the Viisianars had conquered and intermarried with nearly two-thousand years ago. Pearl found herself wondering again if the varied peoples of the Orckid Empire would ever become one. Twenty-three years was so little time, though it was longer than Pearl’s entire life.
Four of the guards pressed through the crowd of wives, daughters, spellers, and off-duty soldiers, while the other two walked behind. They passed near the byway to the Tearfall Gardens, and she was sorely tempted to take a detour, but there were more pressing concerns at present.
“Where are we going?” Arjallia asked as they started up the wide stairway to the second floor.
“We’re going to see our father.”
“I don’t think he wants to see us.”
“What the Emperor wants and what the Emperor needs are not often the same.” One of the guards stifled a laugh at that.
In the vast chamber on the second floor, she found the expected company gathered around the plinth again. “What are those statues?” Arj asked. Pearl ignored her.
Palcian and Neevius were standing at corners of the plinth. Imrell leaned against the wall with a line of eight of her men, her fingers dancing lazily along a new sword she had commissioned a week ago. Kreokus, tellingly, was standing a few feet away, next to the boy Trellion. The Emperor was seated, using the plinth as a table to rest his elbows on.
“Ingrates!” he shouted. “I ought to raise another army. I’ll free the damned Viisians, give them all those bastards’ titles, and use them to put their cowardly heads on spikes!”
“You’re half right,” Pearl said by way of greeting.
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed, but whatever objection he had was precluded by another coughing fit.
“Has anyone looked at your cough, Excellency?”
“Hah!” he half choked. “No Emperor’s ever died of a sniffle.”
“Daedarios did,” Arjallia said. “And he was only Igetus’ age. He died four-hundred years ago of a cough, because he wouldn’t visit the temple priests to be purged.”
Calphus looked at Arjallia, and something in him melted, however briefly. “Arjallia. I have not seen you in… in…”
“Six weeks,” Pearl offered. “She has a good tutor, you’ll be happy to hear.” Olinthess had returned the very morning after she had stormed out, acting for all the world as though nothing had happened. Hursta, as far as Pearl knew, had not been found.
“A good tutor…” he said, absently, almost as if he did not know the word, before growling back to himself. “Ah. Perhaps she can spell me a way to silence these cowardly fools.”
“They’re afraid of the slaves, Excellency.”
“And only a coward fears his slaves!” he shouted, not coughing for once. “They’ve served me faithfully for over forty years!”
“They’ve been dying for over forty years,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Every soldier risks death.”
“You promised them their freedom, Excellency,” Igetus chimed in. He had just entered the vast hall, flanked by a pair of spellers that he soon dismissed. “Half the men you promised it to have already died. Many in battle, and many more from old age.”
Calphus threw his hands up. “The war’s not over, boy.”
“For them it is,” Pearl pressed. “Are you sending them back to the front?”
He stabbed a finger at her, not as meaty as it once was. “Now there’s a plan. Boy, can we round up all these whining peasants and march them back to Bazazanil? Put them in Fostus’ companies, that’ll give him the distraction he craves.”
That gave Igetus some pause. “I’m not sure they’ll go willingly.”
“Let me take them,” Imrell broke in, drawing every eye with her sudden interest. “I’ll take a company back, stiffen it with as many idles as we can. If they show any defiance, my officers will stab them in their sleep.”
Calphus laughed at that. He reared his head back and guffawed, but predictably the guffaws gave way to more coughs. Eventually he countered amiably, “You just want to get back to the fighting, girl. It’s bad enough with Tortorus and the child squabbling with each other. I don’t need a third one troubling the soup.” He jammed a thumb toward Igetus. “Why do you think I made this one come back with us?”
“Petty spite,” she countered. That might have drawn more roars had it come from Igetus, but the Emperor simply laughed at Imrell.
“Excellency,” Kreokus suggested from the shadows, “what do you hope to do about the lords and their fears?”
“Give them footmen pikes. March them back to the front,” he growled. Imrell laughed at that. After a pause, he drummed his fingers on the plinth. “Maybe I ought to free them. Their fighting is done, after all. Just these ones, mind, not the ones out east.”
“But Excellency,” whined Palcian, “Ajman has grown dependent on slavery for its labor. Freedom would upset the entire region’s economy.”
Calphus spat at that. “The economy? Perhaps you should grow your hair out like the boy there.” He waggled his fingers at Igetus, seemingly forgetting that his second son’s head was still shorn. “I’ll dress you up in slips and have you spell for Imrell’s company.”
“I do my own spelling,” Imrell countered.
Palcian’s face grayed with fury, but he managed to keep silent, looking to Neevius.
“Excellency,” Neevius obediently obliged, “The different peoples of Ajman are already at each other’s throats. If you give these continentals the same rights as Mornals, what’s to stop them from filling local offices with their people, from overtaking the markets and buying praetorships, or even bribing the next governor to bend to their will. They could rise up and kill us in our sleep!”
“They are,” Imrell snapped, and for once her golden tusks clicked like her old silver ones did. “They are rising up and killing us in our sleep, Neevius. That’s why we’re here. Sleep with a knife at your bed, if you call yourself a man.”
“Hah!” Calphus clapped his hands like a child at a clowning show. “Lords. Lords have steel. Lords have retainers. Lords have servants. And they fear to sleep in their beds?”
“Your Excellency,” said Kreokus, from the shadows, “Their servants are the ones they fear. Back west, the slaves and peasants are more… more evenly distributed. But here, even in Ajman, when people see a Viisianar they see a slave, regardless of who or what they are. When they see a Mornal, they see a slave master.”
“Then they should have a leacher fix their eyes,” the Emperor growled sinisterly. “There are no more Mornals. There are no Mornals in my empire.”
“Excellency, be reasonable—”
“You don’t tell me what to be!” he exploded, trying and failing to shove himself out of his chair. “Shave your head, you little speller, sitting on your feather cushions in the capitol while the men are out fighting! Reason!” He was on the verge of a tirade, but once again he broke down into coughing. He stabbed his finger out at Kreokus, commanding silence from the room, but his coughing went on and on, forestalling all communication.
Pearl looked around the room. Imrell and Igetus were looking alternately at each other and their father. The guards were all glancing about uncomfortably, as were the lords. All except Palcian, who was still glaring daggers at the Emperor.
“Reason!” he managed to choke out before more coughing overbore him. A full minute had passed before Igetus stepped closer and put a hand on his father’s shoulder, but Calphus shoved him off so violently he slipped from his chair and fell to the floor. Pearl was unsure if the resulting crack came from the chair or his bones, or her own fears.
Either way, the Emperor did not get back up.
Pearl surprised herself by flying around the plinth and kneeling at Calphus’ side. He was still coughing, thrashing about like a squalling baby, batting away the hands of Igetus, Pearl, and Neevius as they tried to right him. Pearl’s stomach twisted to see it. His chokes were interspersed with wordless wails, childlike in his current posture.
Imrell pointed to a line of soldiers. “Get him to his bed. Now!”
“Those are my soldiers,” Palcian said, affronted.
Instantly, Imrell ripped her new sword from its wooden scabbard. “They’re mine now. Get out!” She advanced on Palcian, who backed away wide eyed. Even as she was chasing him off, she shouted, “Get a stretcher for the Emperor! Bring him to his bed. Now!” Soldiers ran out to obey, even as Palcian ran out to escape.
“Fetch…” he managed to choke out. “Fetch the girl…” He was waggling his fingers and Igetus. “Girl… the speller…”
Igetus was transfixed, but after a moment he stirred, and answered, “Aivliriai?”
“Yes, yes…” the Emperor gagged, before sinking into another coughing fit.
Igetus took a step away, his eyes wide, then stopped. He looked around madly and pointed at little Trellion. “You. Run to the spellers’ dormitories and fetch Aivliriai. Bring her to his Excellency’s bedchamber. Now!”
The boy sprung off like a charging horse.
“Who is Aivliriai?” Pearl asked.
“She’s studied medicines,” Igetus answered absently before turning to the remaining lords. “Go. Make a thorough search of the palace and ensure that everyone keeps silent on this. The Emperor is in good spirits and is recovering. Go.”
Neevius looked about to object, but nodded and left. Kreokus offered a vague glance at Pearl before departing as well.
The coughing had finally subsided. Calphus was on the floor, still, breathing heavily and wincing in pain. Only then, at long last, did he look old. Something broke within Pearl at that moment, something she had never known was there, but whatever it was, it was gone now.
Sometime in the chaos, Arjallia had approached and knelt beside Pearl. Imrell had returned from chasing Palcian off and stood over them, her sword still bared in her hand. Igetus stood farther off, but still near.
A grayish sweat covered the Emperor’s face, with what looked to be a pink tinge. The light of the braziers struck this spot poorly; it had to be a trick of the light. His eyes were dark and lusterless, but he was still breathing. Each inhalation seemed to cause him pain, yet he gasped greedily for every gulp of breath, as hungry for the air as he had been for everything else all his life.
Arjallia laid a hand on his jerking chest. “Father?”
The Emperor’s eyes seemed to focus briefly, and a shaking arm rose up, almost connecting with Arjallia’s face. “My daughter…” he half-groaned, half-whispered. The arm collapsed across his stomach as he wondered, almost to himself, “Where… where is my daughter?”
Arj looked as though her father had slapped her. Pearl took her hands in her own and said, “Everia is abed. Her child is due soon, and she is weak.”
Calphus looked as though he did not understand the words. “I need.. I need.. What? No, I need…” Pearl’s chest was aching, as though someone were trying to tear it open. Worse still, she did not understand why she felt this way.
“We’ll move her,” Imrell offered. “We’ll put her in a bed next to yours.”
Calphus smiled at that, sighing. He closed his eyes and seemed to grow calm, but he was still shaking, half-jerking with every breath.
No one knew how long it was before they finally returned with a stretcher. He started heaving and coughing again as they bore him onto it, but Igetus gave them firm instructions not to stop until the Emperor was in his bed, and to tear the palace apart if the speller Aivliriai was not yet found.
Pearl was holding Arjallia’s hand as they walked behind the stretcher. She squeezed it every so often, and Arj responded by gripping so tightly Pearl feared her bones might pop. They were walking up a broad spiral stairway to the fifth floor, Pearl again noting how a company of invaders could fight up it with ease, when a woman’s screams began to echo from above.
“Everia!” Pearl turned to Igetus, only to discover he was not there. He and Imrell were both gone. “Where did they go?” she cried to one of the soldiers, but no one had any answers. She rushed up the stairs and down the hall, pulling Arjallia with her.
Everia was on a makeshift stretcher of sheets and blankets, howling unbearably. “Noooo!” she screamed again and again. “Don’t put in me in there! He’ll kill the baby! No!” A speller was running circles around the soldiers that bore her, shouting over and over that they needed a midwife. Finally, she gave up and ran down the stairs.
“She’s broken!” the speller snapped at Pearl as she passed. “The baby’s coming early. Why did they move her!”
“No one defies the Emperor,” Pearl answered, but the speller was already out of earshot.
She ran up to her sister. “Everia,” she said smoothly, laying a hand on her gasping sister’s shoulder. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“They’re killing him,” she rasped, “They’re killing him; they’re killing the baby. They’re going to kill the baby.”
“Everia,” she repeated. “The baby is coming. It’s a little early, but it will be fine.”
“Noooo,” she moaned like a child. “I can’t lose another, I can’t lose another one. Too many, too many…”
A flush ran up Pearl’s neck. She was sure Everia had had miscarriages before, though no one spoke of it. Just how many constituted “too many,” she did not know.
Against her wails of protest, the soldiers carried her into the Emperor’s bedroom. Pearl followed, her sweaty fingers locked around Arjallia’s until she jerked away and yanked her grip loose. She stood outside, enormous leaden eyes staring at nothing, shaking her head over and over.
“Arjallia,” Pearl pleaded, “we have to stay together.”
“I’m not,” Arj whimpered. “No, I can’t, I’m not…”
“We have to…” She looked around the room. The Emperor was in his bed, eight soldiers standing uncertainly around him. Three of them were her own men Kreokus had gifted her. The other three were part of the company carrying Everia. There was no second bed to set her in, so they were standing around looking foolish. A room full of men, waiting for orders.
She almost ordered her men to take Arjallia home to the Old Palace, but she stopped herself. These men were from Tauriconia. They may well have spent their entire lives under the New Empire. Even so, she had known them for only a few days.
“Where is Imrell?” she shouted to anyone. No one answered.
One of the men she did not know looked to her and asked, “What should we do, m’lady? There’s no bed.”
“Take her back,” Pearl half-shouted. “Take her back to her chambers.”
“Yes,” Everia rasped, out of breath. “Yes, take me back, please.”
The man’s face froze. “The prince said it would be our lives if we didn’t lay them together.”
“The prince isn’t here. Put her back!”
The soldiers stared at one another. “The bed’s big enough for two,” one of them finally murmured.
“No, no, no,” Everia gasped. “Please! Don’t put me in bed with him!” Her protest was cut short by a shattering, prolonged scream.
“What is going on here,” asked an authoritative voice. Pearl realized she was standing in the doorway, and stepped aside as she turned. A tall Viisianar woman dressed in an emerald green gown of cambric, covered by a rich yellow shawl, a thin band of silver around her head, strode forcefully into the room. She had a somewhat round face for a Viisianar, making her neck seem even longer and elegant like a heron’s, and her blindingly white hair, which looked to be curly and voluminous normally, was bound in braids around her head to keep it from her face. She wore a single silver ring around the first finger of her left hand, which was delicate as all Viisianar hands, but had the short, stubbed nails of a laborer. She used the hand to point to a soldier. “You. What is the meaning of this?”
He stammered, “They, he, the Prince ordered us to bring her here.”
“No,” she gasped again breathlessly. “They’ll kill the baby, he’s sick, he’s killing the baby…”
“Fetch a midwife at once,” the woman commanded to the room as she approached Everia. She bent over her, felt her belly and her throat, then looked back. “Fetch a midwife. Now!”
“Any midwife. All of you at once. Go get one. Now.”
Nearly every soldier bumbled out of the room then. Two remained, both Pearl’s, the Talashi man and a short Mornal with pouchy eyes whom she thought was named Caggus.
“Please,” Everia moaned. “He’ll kill him, please…”
At that, the Emperor stirred, groaning, coughing a single time. The woman moved over to Calphus and felt his throat, then his chest. “Open your eyes, Excellency,” she commanded. The Emperor shifted and groaned some more, but did not open his eyes.
The woman slapped his cheek.
It was light, so light it would not trouble a babe. But Pearl and both the soldiers gasped. Calphus opened his eyes.
“Look at me, Excellency. Good. Open your mouth.”
As soon as he opened his mouth, he began coughing again. The woman turned away, but seemed untroubled by his expectorate. When she stood again, there was spittle on her cheek, and a few drops of blood.
“My Lady,” she said to Everia. “The Emperor is no danger to your child. He has been poisoned.”
The Emperor coughed more at that. Pearl felt a strange weight in her stomach. “Poisoned?” she breathed. “When? By whom?”
“Over time, I would guess,” she answered. “He has been ill for days now. He might have been poisoned all at once. There are slow-acting poisons. But such things are far more common in the southern world. It could have been a spell, but the singer might well have poisoned everyone who heard, and there would be witnesses. Who could have been alone with the Emperor? Who is warming his bed?”
Pearl had no answer to that. “Who are you?”
“Aivliriai. A speller. I have been working for your father since his arrival.”
She did not know why she was so shocked that this person, so seemingly intimate with the Emperor’s life here, should be completely unknown to her. Pearl was not often in her father’s company. Still. “Have you ever been alone with him?”
“I have,” she allowed as she repositioned Everia on the bed, easing her legs apart. “But I would be a fool to tell you how I killed him. Fetch me that footstool.”
Without thinking, Pearl obeyed. The woman, Aivliriai, set the stool by the bed and propped Everia’s feet upon it. “No good. We need more room.” She looked to the soldiers. “You two. Find another bed and bring it here.”
They hesitated, until Pearl shouted, “Do it!” They ran out the room. She covered her face with her sweaty hands. “Who? Who would poison him?”
“That is a long list of people, my Lady. Where is the Emperor’s son? Where is his other daughter? They should be here.”
Pearl shook her head. “I don’t…” Her entire body jerked, and she turned to look out the doorway. Arjallia was gone.
“Where did she go?”
“The girl?” The speller sighed. “I am not sure. She does not live in the palace, does she?”
“No. We’re in the Old Palace.”
“Then your guess is as good as mine, my Lady.”
“I… I have to…” She did not want to leave her father and sister so unattended, but neither could she let Arjallia wander the Grand Palace alone, or worse, leave it. “I have to go.”
“No!” Everia screamed, flinging a hand out toward her. “Pearl, please! Please don’t leave me alone!” She screamed again.
Pearl dug her hands into her ratty, brown hair and pulled to keep from screaming. “I have to… where are the soldiers? Where is everyone!?” She leaned out the doorway and shouted, “Igetus! Imrell! Arjallia!”
It felt like the world had abandoned her here with these three strangers.
“How far along is she?” asked another strange voice. A middle-aged woman in a rough cloth skirt and blouse bulled into the room. She looked like a Viisianar, though far too voluptuous, and she had the straight black hair of a Daridan.
“Forgive me,” Aivliriai said, “I’ve been distracted. The Emperor is dying.”
Calphus groaned at that.
“I have to…” Pearl started, but Everia screamed again.
The woman, who must have been a midwife, knelt down before Everia, lifted the skirt of her gown, and examined her.
“Is it as I feared?” Aivliriai asked.
The midwife pulled herself out from the skirt. “The child is twisted.”
“I thought so, but I have only delivered two children, and not for many years. I have never dealt with this.”
“I have. Worry about the Emperor.”
“Please!” Everia screamed again.
Pearl stood in the doorway, frozen. The midwife looked at her.
“Some sun tea would relax her muscles, make this easier.”
“Yes,” Aivliriai agreed, then pointed at Pearl. “My Lady, have you been to the Tearfall Gardens?” She nodded. “Excellent. In the gardens, there is a bank of sunburst flowers of many colors. Fetch us two or three of the black ones.”
“No, no!” Everia cried. “That’s poison! You’re killing my baby!”
“It is a relaxant, not a poison,” Aivliriai said firmly. “Fetch the flowers, and if you pass anyone, servant or soldier or the prince himself, tell them to heat a basin of water and bring it here.” She thought a moment, then added. “Also in the Gardens is a bank of tall blue flowers, not ten strides from the sunbursts. Bring us two of these, root and stem. Go!”
Pearl flew out the door. She was already panting ten seconds in, but her heart was racing so fast she did not feel it. Halfway down the first flight of stairs, she slipped and began tumbling, but the stairway was so wide she was able to splay herself out and slide down, coming to a stop even before reaching the fourth floor. She had struck several spots and could already feel bruises forming, but she shoved herself to her feet and ran onward.
The Grand Palace was empty as a tomb. The fourth floor was furnished with statues of ebonwood and onyx, lined and detailed in powdered pearl and silver. Always grouped in eights, the statues were all of beautiful women, dressed in elaborate ceremonial garbs Pearl had never seen, staring down in her. In judgment? She did not have time to look closer, but she was sure it was not in encouragement.
The palace was not called Grand for nothing. She had only been to the fourth floor in passing, once before when she and Kreokus first went to the battlements, and again while following the dying Emperor to his chamber. ‘The dying Emperor’ echoed in her own thoughts. He was her father. Calphus was her father. It was fitting she should feel this way. She ought to be terrified, even weeping openly. This was appropriate. Why, then, did it feel so alien? Like someone else had taken over her body and was using it to grieve for this cruel, selfish stranger she had spent her life with? “Arjallia!” she suddenly cried out, but nobody answered.
She nearly slipped again running down the stairs to the third floor, and kept her head enough to slow down: even if falling did not kill her, it would waste more time than stepping carefully. Finally, she came across four soldiers carrying a small but well cushioned featherbed. She wanted to demand why they had come all the way to the third floor looking for a bed, but instead she pulled one away and commanded the heated water, got directions from another, then continued to the first floor.
The first floor was filled with soldiers.
They were standing in ordered files, spears up, with captains after every twenty men, their swords already out. “What’s going on?” she asked of anyone, but the men may as well have been carved of ebonwood.
She called out Arjallia’s name again and again, her head swinging wildly about. It was only by chance she just spied Imrell stalking around the corner down some hallway she did not know, and sprinted after her.
“Imrell!” she called again and again, but her sister ignored her until she had come upon her, suddenly whirling. Her sword, too, was out, though at least she did not lift it to Pearl’s throat. “Imrell! I was calling you!”
“What!?” she barked. “You look like death. What is it?”
“It’s… it’s…” She wanted to grab her and scream at her, ask why she and Igetus had suddenly abandoned their father, where they had gone, but her breath had suddenly vanished, and she doubled over gasping.
“What is it?” Imrell asked again. “We’re in the middle of something, you may have noticed.”
A piercing stitch was throbbing in Pearl’s side, but she managed to choke out, “Arjallia. Where is Arjallia?”
“What? I don’t know. Why isn’t she with you?”
“I need… where…” the walls were going black, and there seemed to be not enough air in the room as she swallowed deeply, greedy for each breath. “Where did you to go? Where is Igetus?”
“The city’s boiling over, in case you forgot. Igetus is marshalling the lords. I’m commanding our security, so unless you have something important to say, go back to Father.”
“Where…” she tried to look around. “Where are… where are the Gardens?”
Imrell looked as though she had punched her. “The Gardens? I don’t know, ask Everia.”
Before she could tell her about their sister, Imrell was stalking off, her bejeweled sword flashing in the dim light of the braziers. Pearl took a step after her, then pitched to the side, throwing her arm out and catching herself against the wall. She dipped down and fell to her knees. Arjallia, she tried to scream, but her breath was gone.
The room was going dark. The braziers must have been guttering out. She needed a rest. The deep red rug of the hallway caressed and closed around her knees so invitingly, it drew the rest of her down, and in an instant she was lying there. Her lungs seemed to have given up trying, and they too lay still, letting what little air there was filter in at their own discretion.
She lie there as the fires were swallowed up, and the whole world went black.
The air crept into her lungs, achingly slow, as if each puff of wind were exploring new territory, some cavern filled with treasure or dragons or glory or death. With deadly caution, each little breath stalked into her lungs, and her dry throat wheezed like the wind through the trees. All at once, the dried sweat on her face flashed cold, and her eyes cracked open again. “Arj,” she exhaled into the empty hallway.
She felt a thousand years old as she rolled over and creaked to her feet. She started running, more stumbling, unsure of where she was going but knowing the Gardens were on this floor, somewhere. She had told Arjallia how beautiful the Gardens were; perhaps she went to find them. But she had no idea where they were. Of course, it seemed Pearl had no idea either. She wanted to tear her hair out, but did not have the energy.
The Gardens were enormous; they should not be this difficult to find. At last she came across a hall that seemed familiar, but a line of soldiers was trooping down it, spears at the ready. The hallway was wide enough to permit four columns easily, but she still crushed herself against a wall, both to keep away from their spears and to give her a moment to catch her breath. One of the soldiers, with a piebald face and a newly shorn head, turned to see her.
“M’lady!” Corporal Hathmet cried, stepping out of line. “What are you doing here? You should be with the women and the spellers. They’re on the second floor, in the leaching chamber.”
“Back in line!” someone up ahead shouted.
“Have you seen Arjallia?” she asked desperately.
“My sister! A little girl, Viisianar, or she looks it at least. Twelve years old.”
“Back in line! Now!” the voice repeated, closer.
“I think I saw a little girl running about on the third floor. I’m not sure.”
“Corporal!” the voice called. A man stepped up, a Viisianar in black pauldrons and a purple chest plate over a byrnie of black chains. Pearl did a doubletake when she noticed his head was shaved. He had a sword out and put it to Hathmet’s chest. “Last chance, crowsfood! Get in line or get on my sword!”
“Yes, Cap’n!” he bellowed, weaving back into the line of running soldiers. “Third floor!” he called back as he ran, “maybe near the temple!” The Viisianar captain gave her a glare, then turned and ran back into the darkness. Something about him made Pearl’s stomach turn.
She asked the men where the Gardens were, then shouted at them, until finally one pointed back the way she had come. The line had vanished by the time she broke out of the hallway, found another turn, and lumbered down another dark passage.
Why was she doing this? Everia had a midwife and a speller with her. Arjallia had no one. She should be running to the third floor. She resolved to spend one more minute looking for the Gardens, then turn around and head upstairs. She resolved again a minute later, and again a minute after that.
Finally, she stumbled upon the Tearfall Gardens. The sunlight breaking over the walls above ripped stinging tears from her face. She rubbed at her eyes while rushing inward, looking for the sunburst flowers. When her eyes were clear again, her stomach lurched and she came to a stop.
At the foot of the great, mossy oak, whose branches burst out in all directions, Everia’s daughter was weeping. The Daridan caretaker was standing next to her, looking up in the great branches, distress stamped on her face. Pearl glanced up and saw her nephew, far above, crouched on a single branch, looking down petrified.
“Please,” the caretaker moaned, rushing over to her. “Please! I turned away for just a moment, and he was up the tree like a lemur!”
“So go get him!” Pearl shouted, scanning the area for the sunbursts.
“I…” she stammered. “We should… It’s so high.”
“That’s why you should bring him down.”
“He got up himself.”
“He’s a child!”
“Yes but… we should… we should get a man.”
“So go get one!” she nearly screamed. Her niece wailed at that. Pearl tore freely at her hair as she looked around. The caretaker dashed off. Pearl had no idea if she would return. Pearl would not.
The whole tree thrummed for a moment, and Pearl looked up again. Her nephew was clinging to the branch with all four limbs, gasping.
Pearl looked to her niece. For a mad moment, she forgot her name. “Liniv,” she said at last. “Do you know what sunburst flowers are?” She stared absently for a moment, then nodded her head. “Good. Go find the sunburst flowers and bring me four black ones. Just the black ones, no other color. You understand?” She ran off, and Pearl looked up the tree again.
She seemed to remember trying to climb a tree when she was five. It could have been this very tree. Had she ever been brought to the Gardens when she was little? She did not think so.
This would be easy. The tree was nothing but branches, most of them sturdy. There were handholds everywhere. She reached out and saw her hand was trembling so terribly, she thought surely some invisible force had hold of her arm and was shaking it like a cur with a bone.
She took a breath. Her dry throat wheezed like the wind on exhalation. She reached out again, but her hands were not stop shaking. She wiped the sweat on her skirts and grabbed hold anyway.
Her arms were burning ten seconds in. She quickly realized her skirt would get her killed, but madly she was too fearful of being seen in just her linens. She climbed back down and hoisted the skirt up as best she could and tied it into a great knot that rested between her thighs like a big, bulbous boil, but left her legs bare and moveable. Then she started climbing again.
At least she was not panting anymore. This was simple. Not even as exhausting as she thought, though her limbs continued to burn with the agony of running from floor to floor, and her heart felt like a single, seized organ, like one constant beat, unceasing. She could almost swear she heard her sister screaming far above.
She tried to remember her nephew’s name. The frustration seemed to calm her, and her arms grew steady. Each time she pulled herself higher, she felt as though she were lifting the weight of the world, and was amazed that she could do it. She could not find Arjallia, she could not deliver Everia’s baby, and no force on the earth could prolong the Emperor’s life, but she could climb this tree. She could save this boy.
Right as she thought it, the boy slipped again, dangling from the branch. His arms were wrapped securely around it, but he started crying, “My arms hurt.” So do mine, she wanted to answer, but knew that would do no good. She thought of telling him to be brave like his father, but at his age he might well not even know who his father was. Virogus had been fighting since his son was born.
Rogulus! That was it. “Rogulus!” she called out. “Your mother needs your help! The baby is coming and she needs you to be strong for her. Just keep holding on; I’m almost there.” She briefly wondered what exactly she would do once she reached the boy, but forcefully shoved the useless thought aside. Worrying on that would not help right now.
Until she pulled herself up for what felt the hundredth time, and was on the branch. She straddled it awkwardly, the huge bulge of her tied-up skirt pressing against herself like a lascivious beast or the insistent lover she felt she would never know. She slowly squirmed out onto the branch, reached down with her still hands, and pulled Rogulus’ legs back up onto the branch.
“All right,” she said as calmly as she could, “we’re going to crawl back to the edge of the branch, and we’ll just keep going from there. All right?”
“I can’t,” he whimpered. “I can’t do it.”
“All right,” she sighed, “come on.” She reached over again and tried to yank the boy up over the branch, instead of hanging from it like a sloth. They both began to shimmy back to the trunk. Rogulus became so eager that he managed to squirm around Pearl and surpass her on the return trip. “Would have been nice if he could have found that courage earlier,” she muttered to no one.
No sooner had the words escaped her lips, than her foot slipped on a patch of moss. She lost her grip entirely, and for a few seconds she was falling, suspended in the world. Too soon, her tail connected with a large branch and sharp pain fired up her spine. She wailed as she rolled over the branch, nearly falling clear, but managed to scramble about and get her hands around another nearby branch before falling again.
Her back felt as though it were twisted in two. “Liniv,” she gasped, and her throat felt as though it were tearing, “Did you get the sunbursts?” Her sweaty hands slipped, tearing the moss up from the branches.
“Rogulus!” she shouted. Pearl remembered thinking how impressive it was, that such a small girl could say such a complicated name. She slipped again, and as she tumbled she managed to spy a single black sunburst in the girl’s hand. She heard a woman’s scream just before everything went black.